Disposable workers of the oil and gas fields
If you don’t have a college degree, it’s the best job in the West. Unless you die, unnoticed.
“You’re going to obtain a job. You have to maintain a job,” a Wyoming judge told Joe Laster. “You have the ability to work. You’re a big, strapping young man.”
The judge’s order came on Oct. 31, 2002, in a utilitarian district courtroom on a hilltop in Gillette, a city of 23,000 surrounded by coalbed methane fields and coal mines. Many people in Gillette survive on energy-related jobs, to the degree that the city’s seal, displayed on its trucks and letterhead, boasts, “The Energy Capital of the Nation.” But like most everywhere in America, some people in Gillette also support themselves by selling drugs, and Joe Laster, then 24 years old, had been caught dealing baggies of methamphetamine.
The pre-sentence report, supplemented with information from Laster’s family, sketches his path to that point: He’d lived in a half-dozen states as his parents drifted from job to job in the construction industry, mostly calling an 8-by-45-foot camper trailer home. He’d dropped out of high school, held spotty employment in gas fields and drywalling, had a 2-year-old daughter whose mother he didn’t marry and a rap sheet of 18 misdemeanors, from driving offenses to drugs to booze. He was known on some street corners as “crankhead Joey” and was residing in a campground at the time of his arrest.
The judge and the prosecutor gave Joe Laster a chance to straighten out: In a plea deal, he was put on four to nine years of probation, to be served, at his request, in the state’s local community corrections center, a low-slung, humorless building in an industrial zone on Gillette’s south side. If Laster could put in six good months, living in the corrections center while holding down a job and proving himself drug-free, he would be released to serve the rest of his probation outside custody.
A national nonprofit, Volunteers of America, contracts with the state to run the corrections center; the group has a Christian philosophy, and the center has Jesus portraits and religious slogans on the walls. “You won’t be able to quit or change a job without permission of your probation officer,” the judge warned.
How did Laster fare under that order to work? Though he was in the state’s custody the rest of his life, official sources provide only fragmentary information. His family is more forthcoming.
Taking directions the Lasters had provided, I drive several blocks from the courthouse during one of Gillette’s notorious blizzards, battling slush so deep it scrapes the car’s underbody. I wrestle a turn at Pat’s Liquors, stop at a single-wide trailer sandwiched between other trailers. Right away, the place looks halfway defeated; the front window has cracks held together by a starburst of duct tape. Inside, in the kitchen, Laster’s mother, Peggy, and his father, Ken, both look haggard; they’re missing front teeth and chain-smoking Camels. One of his sisters, Amanda, has damp hair and glowing skin, fresh from the shower.
They’re all angry, the type of anger that refuses to dissipate.
Peggy takes the lead. Between swigs from a quart beer bottle wrapped in a paper bag, she pulls out her stash of documents and snapshots, which, with additional court records, spell out what happened: Joe Laster had a meth relapse in the corrections center and was sent to Wyoming’s toughest prison, in Rawlins. He put effort into recovering from that setback, transferring to a Colorado prison, where he earned his GED, then to a forestry-oriented boot camp in the Wyoming prison system, where he learned to fight wildfires and was in a crew that saved a hundred homes. He took electronics classes and attended substance-abuse programs. He wrote the judge a letter, promising, “I plan to make better decisions in the future.”
By January 2005, Joe Laster made it back to the corrections center in Gillette, where staff helped him get a job with a small private company, Tyvo LLC, that was fixing up old water-well drilling rigs to be used for testing soils in the methane fields. With the current energy boom now into its seventh year, Gillette has essentially zero unemployment, and bosses come to the corrections center and pick up inmates for almost every shift.
About noon on Feb. 21, 2005, Laster and another inmate were working out in the high desert, on a dirt road off a dirt road off a dirt road, on a Tyvo drilling rig that was more than 40 years old. The rig — a 24-foot-tall derrick on a truck bed — hadn’t been in service for three years and needed repairs. The industry hungers for equipment as much as for workers, and in the rush for methane, which often occurs in shallow coalbeds, many water-well rigs have been pressed into service, either to tap the water-methane mix or for soil-testing.
Laster was loosening two stubborn bolts near an exposed, spinning driveshaft. The glove on his right hand snagged on the driveshaft, and in that split second, instinctively, he reached with his left hand. The inexorable machine — revolving at least 800 times per minute — tore off both his arms. He bled to death before the medical helicopter reached him, according to first responders.
Peggy has gone to some trouble to locate the spot where he died, and she shows me snapshots she took of her only son’s blood spilled on the dirt.
“They took my son!” she says. She leans close, sobs, collapses in a chair, rocks back and forth, hugging herself as if she might crack apart and dropping the terrible snapshots face down onto the linoleum.
Joe Laster’s death received almost no news coverage. The Associated Press published a few basics, a total of 101 words. Two investigators from Wyoming’s workplace overseer, the Department of Employment’s Workers’ Safety and Compensation Division, completed an investigation months later. The agency found that Tyvo LLC had violated safety regulations, citing the company for failing to have a guard on the driveshaft that grabbed Laster’s glove, for inadequate training, and for having no first-aid supplies at the site. The agency slapped Tyvo with a fine: $3,375
That doesn’t begin to satisfy Peggy Laster. She is tormented by thoughts that her son’s death has been swept into the brush. She wants a lot more investigation. She talks of the Flight for Life helicopter landing in the wrong place and then doubling back, which a map in a sheriff’s report indicates. Joe had years of experience on drill rigs, she says; he knew this one was a disaster waiting to happen. “It was a Mickey Mouse operation,” says Ken Laster. “He called us (a few days before the accident) and said he wasn’t happy working there.”
The family has few resources for pressing a legal grievance. Four adults — including Amanda’s husband, Justin — and three kids live squeezed into the one-bathroom trailer. But they want to spread the word, even if they also feel they’re taking a real risk meeting with me, a stranger. After all, I could be working for the cops, and, technically, they are fugitives: Arrest warrants are out on Peggy and Ken for driving with suspended licenses and then failing to show up in court.
As they talk about the injustice of what happened to Joe on the Tyvo rig, an irony emerges: Everyone in the trailer depends on the income from a single job, held by Justin, and that job is located in the methane fields that they know, all too well, can be lethal. At 28, Justin has worked there for 11 years already, doing, he says, “everything that needs doing.”
Across town, bosses still swing by the corrections center and pick up inmates and then head out to all sorts of jobs, some of them in the oil and gas fields.
The Lasters’ case burns on one end of the spectrum, but its themes resonate.
From Louisiana to Alaska, oil and gas is an industry in a rush, spurred by a sense of worldwide shortage and entranced by escalated prices and inordinate profits. And the industry targets the Interior West, especially; the region’s summertime total of drilling rigs has soared since 2000, from 204 to 447, according to RigData, a Texas company that tracks the industry. With that increase in drilling and related activities, the number of fatal accidents has also risen. Last year alone, 20 people died doing jobs directly related to drilling and servicing wells in the region. And for the whole time period I studied — 2000 to 2006, roughly encompassing the current boom in coalbed-methane and other natural gas exploration — federal and state records show at least 89 people died working in energy extraction in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Montana and North Dakota. That toll is almost certainly an understatement, and not just because the average oil and gas death gets less publicity than, say, a fatal traffic wreck. This industry’s true accident totals, fatal and otherwise, are as shrouded in obscurity as the Laster case is.
There is a federal agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, assigned to look out for worker safety. It either handles each state’s workplaces directly, or hands off the duty to state agencies. But the federal and state safety cops don’t seem particularly tough. They can’t do many workplace inspections, because typically there are no more of them now than 20 years ago, straining to cover an explosion in the numbers of workplaces of all types that comes with the West’s population growth. And when workers die in the oil and gas fields, the safety cops levy fines that are so low, compared to the profits being reaped, that families often view the penalties as insulting and outrageous.
Other aspects of state laws also appear to be rigged against accident victims and their families, making it all but impossible for them to sue even in the face of apparently extraordinary management negligence. At times, the industry and the whole government system treat tenaciously loyal workers as if they were as disposable as a broken drill bit. The victims’ own character traits — from stoicism to lack of formal education to a tendency to use alcohol or drugs or both — often set them up to take the hit.
But there is a less downtrodden end of the death-and-energy spectrum, and I find it by taking the two-lane along the Bear River north from Evanston, Wyo., another oil-and-gas town. Past the office of Baker Hughes Fishing Services (the “fishing” that drillers do trying to hook things lost down the holes) and the turnoff for the big natural-gas plants that Chevron and BP have tucked into the hills, I take a series of dirt roads and finally come to the handsome log home where Kaylee and Bill Bryant have seven acres backed against the ice-rimmed river.
Bill greets me at the door, a polite, lean man with weathered gray eyes and a handlebar mustache; he’s wearing a blue Wrangler shirt, jeans and a tooled-silver belt buckle. He invites me into a living room that is grandly Western: soaring ceiling, draw-shaved logs from a local mill, sanded plank floors, fire flickering in the stove. Kaylee also shakes my hand politely, and on hers there’s the noticeable twinkle of the big diamond wedding ring Bill bought her 32 years ago. They’ve decorated their house with an array of cowboy stuff: Bill’s grandfather’s chaps, Bill’s father’s saddle, the chaps Bill had as a kid, and Kaylee’s spurs hang on the walls or the railing of the interior balcony. They both speak with a slight country drawl.
"I was born and bred cowboy," Bill says.
He started working as a ranch-hand when he was 15 and got into breaking colts and riding saddle broncs. But when he was 22, the ranch was sold, and the best-paying jobs he could find were in the oil and gas fields. He’s been working there for about 30 years, keeping a few horses on the side. Kaylee is a special-diet cook in a mental hospital. They’re empty-nesters, with two grown daughters and one grown son, Preston. Preston, they explain, dreamed of college, but went to work on drilling rigs right out of high school, aiming to save money for his education. He bought a truck with his first paycheck and never got ahead of his bills. About to turn 31, with a wife and four kids, he still works side-by-side with Bill, on a rig owned by Nabors Industries Ltd., the world’s largest drilling company. The rig is set up about a hundred miles south of here, and they work seven days in a row, living in one of the trailer-like dorms called "man-camps." Then they come home for seven days.
Bill and Kaylee take me upstairs and show me the saddle that belonged to their younger son, Colton. They explain how much Colton loved horses, too; like the time Colton decided that for his 16th birthday, he wanted to adopt a wild mare that had been rounded up by the federal government. With Bill giving advice, Colton broke the mare to saddles, then proudly showed his mother, riding it while dragging a bale of hay. Bill points out the rust-colored mare standing behind a fence in the back yard. "Just a BLM junker," he says, but Colton made something of it.
They tell more tales of Colton’s life, his passion for hunting and fishing and four-wheeling. He wanted to become a long-haul trucker, but went to work on the rigs right after high school, and then got married. His branch of the family grew to include his own infant son and a stepdaughter. He worked on rigs for about six years. "It’s a paycheck," Kaylee says. "Nothing else pays so good without a college degree."
On Feb. 14, 2006, Colton left his man-camp about a hundred miles to the north and began a night shift on a rig owned by Patterson-UTI Energy, the world’s second-biggest drilling company. It was 10 degrees or so, with snow on the ground. About 9 p.m., he was working apart from the rest of the crew, in the substructure below the driller’s floor, on a grated walkway amid a clutter of girders and pipes, chains and cables. Apparently he was searching for tools. He fell off the walkway and landed 26 feet below, in the steel-and-dirt cellar, suffering fatal head injuries, Wyoming worker safety investigators found that several factors contributed to the accident. Colton Bryant was wearing a hard hat but no "fall-protection" (that is, a harness that can be attached to anchor points). The company had trained him to wear fall-protection anywhere the drop would be six feet or greater. But in the tight spaces beneath the rig floor it "was not all that practical" to use fall-protection, because he "could not actually move any great distance before (he) would have to reposition the tie-off point," the agency noted. Others in the crew said it was "a gray area" where they also sometimes went without fall-protection.
Perhaps more telling, at the point where Colton fell the walkway had no "adequate" railing (the safety cops didn’t explain the inadequacy), and part of the walkway had no railing at all.
The state agency — which calls itself in shorthand Wyoming OSHA, mimicking the federal agency — concluded Patterson-UTI had violated several safety regulations and fined the firm $7,031. Bill and Kaylee believe the company was negligent. "It’s pretty rotten," Kaylee says. "There should’ve been a railing where Colton was at; if there was a railing, he would’ve been saved."
They show me photos of Colton’s life, flowing one to the next on a DVD that was prepared for a memorial service. As it plays on a computer on the dining room table — 4-year-old Colton on a horse, Colton rafting the Snake River — shot by shot growing him into a man with an impish grin, Kaylee stands, and for a moment, she’s crying quietly. "Sorry," she says. "This means a lot to me, this little round disk."
Bill can’t watch it straight through; I hear the floor creaking as he paces the room, back and forth, occasionally coming up to the screen, looking at whatever picture is there, then pacing away.
Tomorrow, they’ll mark the one-year anniversary of Colton’s death by driving to Las Vegas for a Dolly Parton concert and a few days of what Kaylee calls "a different atmosphere." Then they’ll come home, and Bill and Preston will go back to work, seven days on and seven off, at the Nabors rig.
In the manner of many a modern big business, Patterson-UTI was formed by a merger of two companies; since that 2001 combination, it’s swallowed other companies and assets. Fair to say, it’s been a troubled firm. Beginning in 2001, its chief financial officer ran a phony invoice scheme, embezzling $77 million, according to the FBI. With the skim, he bought multiple homes, a cattle ranch, an airport and 10 aircraft, artwork, jewelry, more than $1 million of boats, about 200 vehicles, and dozens of motorcycles, RVs and other toys. Last November, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Reform-trumpeting executives have run Patterson-UTI since 2005, and Forbes magazine now calls it one of the 400 Best Big Companies in America. By one dark score, it apparently is the leading drilling company: At least 20 of its workers have died in on-the-job accidents since 2001; six fatal accidents occurred in 2006 alone. The toll spurred the federal OSHA to alert local safety agencies to take a harder look at Patterson-UTI operations. But neither the OSHA alert nor the mounting death toll has been widely reported.
A railing for the walkway from which Bryant fell to his death might’ve cost a thousand dollars for steel and a welder’s touch. Patterson-UTI, which has about 300 drilling rigs operating in the U.S. and Canada, made a record profit the year he died — $673 million.
Kaylee explains why she agreed to go through Colton’s story with me: "I just hope it does some good for other families." She advises those who consider sending a loved one into the oil and gas fields: "Keep ’em out of it." She sums up some companies' philosophy, with no audible commas: "A big fat wallet."
When I get back into my car to leave, she stands on the porch and says, “You drive safely now, for the rest of your trip.”
Similar fatal facts and themes can be pulled from the closets of any oil-and-gas state. On the it-runs-in-the-family track, for example: Two 19-year-old men were killed in oil and gas accidents in Colorado last November, and both their fathers work in the industry. A Utah man killed in a well explosion in 2002 had a son who died in a rig accident five years earlier. And so on.
I decided to focus on energy-worker deaths in Wyoming because it’s a state absolutely dominated by the oil and gas industry. Wyoming has the fewest people of all the states — about a half-million — but it produces the most energy of any, measured in total BTUs of oil, gas and coal. The state’s population rises with each energy boom and falls with each bust, a collective inhale and exhale.
A single drilling site involves many companies and crews. The operator (the likes of a Shell or an EnCana) owns or leases the mineral rights under a particular piece of ground, the drilling company brings in the rig, and all the various Halliburtons of the oil patch pass through to pump fluids in and out of the hole to lubricate and control the drilling. Add the companies that supply the specialty equipment and consultants, the truckers that haul waste fluids and gravel and other necessities, the welders and the electricians, and the myriad service providers that combine to get the oil and gas flowing initially, and then tote up the echelons of maintenance companies that come back to the hole again and again to keep it flowing. Multiply this by tens of thousands of wells scattered across the state, roll in thousands of miles of pipelines, and add on the refineries and processing plants that are as large as cities, and you have some idea of the size of oil and gas in Wyoming.
The machinery in and around a drilling rig can hurt or kill from just about any angle. The big drilling rigs have derricks as tall as a 15-story building; workers lean off small platforms at the top and at intervals along the rise. The rig’s “floor,” where most people work, might be 30 to 40 feet off the ground. Massive pulleys run up and down on cables and winches, lifting sections of pipe that must be screwed together or unscrewed. When a drill bit needs sharpening or something goes wrong in the hole, a rig must lift the entire weight of the “drill string” — all the pipe in the hole, which might extend more than four miles underground. The load on the rig’s pulleys and derrick can run as much as a million pounds.
Workers get crushed by rig collapses, they fall off the steel ledges and the maze of catwalks and ladders and walkways, they get caught in spinning chains, winches and cables. Sometimes they get strangled by their own fall-protection harnesses. On or off the rigs, they handle flammables, and sometimes they get fireballed. They succumb to poisonous hydrogen sulfide, which occurs in natural gas before it’s processed; one whiff is fatal. They get slammed by valves and pipes that explode under high pressure. They get hit by lightning, freeze to death and die of heat stroke, because the work takes place outside, and it goes on 24/7, 365 days a year, pretty much no matter what.
They also get blown up, as Marsha Iriberry, her brother, Mitchell, and their mother, Anita, explain while they take me on a tour of the methane fields west of a small, all-by-itself Wyoming town named Wright. They’re three heavy people, munching Cheetos and teriyaki jerky while wedged into a green Ford Escape that has three rock pings in the windshield and a Tasmanian Devil figurine on the dashboard. They’re telling me the state’s report on Marsha’s accident underestimated the distance she flew.
"I think she was blown at least 100 feet!" Anita insists.
"More like 200 feet," Marsha says. "It just depended on who measured it. Some of the EMTs told me it was between 100 and 200 feet."
The accident occurred about noon on Sunday, April 6, 2003. Marsha had quit a hardware-store job to work as a “pumper,” driving a pickup around the fields, checking tank gauges, and making sure compressors kept the methane flowing. She was paired with Debra Zeleny, who came from a background in waitressing and grocery clerking. That Sunday, during a bout of springtime sleet, they got an order by cell phone: Go to an intersection of pipelines and help unstick a "pig."
Pigs are hard rubber implements —- sometimes balls, sometimes other shapes — that fit tightly into pipelines and are then propelled by gas pressure. They are used to scrape water and other residue off the internal surfaces of pipes, to increase flow and reduce corrosion. But a pig can get stuck in a pipe, and when that happens, someone in the pipeline control room throttles up the gas pressure behind the pig, and workers along the pipeline open valves to lower the pressure in front of it, hoping to encourage the pig to resume its travel.
Iriberry and Zeleny reached their assigned valve station, a mass of plumbing sticking up from the dirt in the middle of nowhere. The pipeline, buried seven feet below, was 12 inches in diameter. The control room, 12 miles away, increased the upstream pressure to more than 700 pounds per square inch. The women leaned over the iron wheel that rotated the valve, and began to turn it, releasing pressure on their end, downstream of the pig.
Marsha remembers grasping the valve wheel, and the next thing she remembers is waking up, groggy, in pain. The pig had been unexpectedly close to the valve, and it slammed, or came unstuck, all at once, rupturing the pipeline, releasing the high-pressure gas, blowing out a crater, and hurling the women a significant distance. The Wyoming OSHA report says Debra Zeleny flew 54 feet and Marsha Iriberry 64. There was no fiery explosion: It was the force of the gas alone, which the OSHA investigators called “phenomenal,” that propelled the women.
Mitchell thinks the investigators underestimated Marsha’s flight. “The crater was as big as a house,” he says, “so where do you measure from — the edge or the middle of it?”
This long after the accident, they’re making light of it, but they also know it was as serious as could be. Debra Zeleny, a single mother, Marsha suffered broken bones in her right thigh, right heel, left ankle, left elbow, and wrists; she also had damaged vertebrae and many fractures in her pelvis. Bad weather grounded the Flight for Life helicopters, and it took more than an hour for an ambulance to reach the spot. The Gillette hospital rebuilt her wrist with steel pins and her elbow with a steel rotator cup. She was bedridden for weeks, then gangrene-like infections took hold, and she had to be rushed to a bigger hospital to get cut open and cleaned out. She went through two years of rehabilitation.
"See, when you’re in an explosion, everything is blown off your bones, and it has to adhere again," says Anita, who’s helped nurse her daughter back to partial health. "You’re never the same as you were before it happened, mentally or physically. And it affects more than one person — it affects the family."
They say Marsha’s official disability rating, set by doctors who report to the state, is "26 percent full-body impairment." Marsha rattles off the terms: "I can’t bend, kneel, squat, lift overhead, twist, climb ladders more than 10 steps, lift over five pounds consecutively on a regular basis, work or stand more than 30 minutes three times a day," and so on.
Still, Marsha isn’t sitting around complaining. She has a different job now, as a security guard at a coal mine, based in a shack, checking people’s paperwork as they come in and out. It pays $8.50 an hour, about $7 less than she made in the methane fields. Anita is also a mine guard, and Mitchell and another brother, Etienne, are coal miners. (Anita’s husband, Etienne Sr., an immigrant Basque sheepherder, spent most of his life in Wyoming oil and gas and mining, until he got blown up by a natural force — a tornado that ripped through Wright in 2005.)
While looking into the blast that injured Marsha, Wyoming OSHA investigators found that the pipeline company, Merit Energy, had used a common method for unsticking pigs. But they also noted, “None of the companies in the region have written procedures for freeing stuck pipeline pigs. A search of numerous websites did not reveal information on freeing stuck pigs or precautions to observe during those operations.” The investigators recommended that companies figure out how to track pigs’ progress in pipelines, to reduce the chances of slamming. They also recommended the use of “backpressure” — from the downstream end — to free stuck pigs with a gentler nudge.
But Wyoming OSHA did not fine Merit Energy, concluding that there had been no violation of safety regulations. The Iriberrys kind of shrug that finding off, exhibiting a common Wyoming trait — acceptance of whatever is. As we go along the highway at 60 mph, I notice that the women aren’t wearing seatbelts. Marsha says the belt hurts her scars, and Anita puts it in terms of “freedom. I believe accidents are a rule of life. They’re gonna happen, just a matter of when, where and how much.”
We pass methane wells, herds of domestic sheep, antelope, some classic pumpjacks bobbing on oil wells, and a cluster of three big jackrabbits, their ears taller than the brush. Marsha says she’ll probably need more operations to drain fluid pockets in her back and leg. I ask her how she feels, and she says, “Fine. Some days I hurt worse than others, when the weather changes, or I do something I shouldn’t do.” She’s had to buy a lower-power rifle to take on hunting trips.
Back in Wright, at their trailer home on a hilltop with a view, are Mitchell’s wife and kids and Marsha’s cages of loudly chirping lovebirds. There I meet Marsha’s dog, an Australian shepherd named Mickey. Mickey is frisky even though he limps on a bandaged front paw; he got his paw caught in someone’s coyote trap, and the vet had to snip off the damaged toes. They kind of shrug that off, too. They all want to show me the spot where the family patriarch died.
It’s just past the sheet-metal-and-plywood Latigo Hills strip mall. On that summer day when the sky turned black and ugly, Etienne Iriberry Sr. was living in a tiny camper trailer, because he and Anita were going through a divorce; the tornado touched down, demolished the trailer and propelled him through the air. “He landed over there,” Anita says, “by the stop sign.”
Death in the Western oil and gas fields is a story best told through people, rather than statistics, partly because the stats are, as even OSHA might say, inadequate. No one can know exactly how dangerous this industry is, compared to others, because the record-keeping is anything but exact.
If a death occurs during oil and gas trucking operations, safety regulators might assign it a trucking code, where it would disappear into all the other industries’ truck wrecks, obscuring its relationship to oil and gas. A deadly trench cave-in during a pipeline burial could disappear into the total of all industries’ trenching cave-ins.
Each worker safety agency runs differently, to some degree. In the Interior West, the federal OSHA runs Colorado, Montana and North Dakota workplace safety probes; Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico run their own programs, under the direction of governors and oversight of legislatures. If you try to total the accidents, you find problems like this: The Wyoming OSHA investigates if at least three workers are hospitalized overnight. But Utah’s agency investigates whenever one worker (or more) goes to a hospital. In this way, the energy accident statistics of different states become apples and oranges, incomparable, but almost always understatements.
Some companies avoid requirements to report serious accidents by putting workers with broken bones back on the job the next day, according to Wyoming OSHA and staffers at a medical clinic in the industry fields. But there is also a cultural reason for the underreporting of oil and gas accidents. Most of them happen in rural places, where the only witnesses to the carnage are other oil and gas workers, who tend to be a crowd unto themselves, and one significantly outside the nation’s mainstream.
Many of them are transient, chasing the jobs from Texas to Montana to Russia and back, without strong roots in any given community. The stress of constant movement makes their rough lives rougher; they suffer hard knocks regularly, even away from work, and that makes them less equipped to stand up for themselves when workplace disaster strikes. They’re not organized. Unions represent only a few — in general, workers in the refineries and on some pipelines. “Unions have great safety programs” and would insist on full reporting of accidents, says Kim Floyd, head of the Wyoming AFL-CIO.
To rephrase the coarse bumper sticker, mistakes happen, and in the oil and gas fields, responsibility for them is often diffuse. It’s a testament to the industry’s safety efforts that more aren’t hurt on the job. I find one of those efforts on a snow-skimmed bluff overlooking Casper, Wyo., behind the headquarters of the Wyoming Contractors Association, where the ground is bladed flat for several sizes of drilling rigs.
About 10 men, wearing gray hard hats and canvas jackets, do laps on the biggest rig: They climb the ladder to the rig’s floor and practice yanking the 175-pound iron “slips” — collars that keep vertical drill pipes aligned. They latch and unlatch a 300-pound pipe clamp. Then they walk briskly around the platforms, back down to the ground, and up the ladder to do it all again. They shout out the names of the rig’s parts as they pass by: “Mud pump!” … “Drill line!” … “Production line!” … “Discharge line!”
This training scene started in 2005, a year when at least eight men died doing wide-ranging tasks for Wyoming’s oil and gas industry. Shocked by that toll and needing to address a chronic worker shortage, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Don Likwartz, head of the industry-allied Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, combined with the billionaire McMurry family (Pinedale gas fields and heavy construction), 40-odd other companies (which donated equipment and $630,000), and the federal Department of Labor (with a $2 million grant) to launch the Rocky Mountain Oil & Gas Training School. John Muse, in a spiffy white hard hat, teaches the bundled-up students how to be “floor hands” — entry-level workers on rigs.
More than 800 men from 44 states, including many military veterans, have completed the weeklong course. Most get jobs on Western drilling rigs; they constitute a noticeable stream into the region’s pool of about 4,000 rig workers, a pool that churns constantly as workers quit. “Some companies have told us their safety is improving, and they attribute some of that to better-trained workers,” says Chris Corlis, the school’s director, who’s also crowned by a white hard hat.
Pretty much everyone agrees that rig safety in general has improved over the decades. The industry hasn’t reformed its structural problems, though. Those begin with the standard 12-hour shifts, working seven to 14 days in a row, with the off-duty workers holed up in spartan barracks. Safety agencies frequently note long shifts and worker fatigue as accident factors. There’s also the dangerous old technology: Many drilling rigs are more than 20 years old, built in the last big drilling rush; they’re constantly rebuilt and modified, but many still use outdated technology, such as naked, mechanically spun chains that screw together sections of pipe. The agencies allow companies to decide when they can afford to phase out the chains and other vintage equipment.
Wyoming OSHA has only eight cops, the “compliance officers” who inspect workplaces, cite companies, and investigate accidents. Only six of them concentrate on safety; the other two enforce health-related regulations. The number of safety cops hasn’t changed since the 1980s. Kathryn Sessions, a state senator from Cheyenne whose constituents include friends of a man killed on a drilling rig, tried to pass a bill in 2005 to fund two additional state safety cops. It was overwhelmingly rejected. Gov. Freudenthal kept pushing, and last year, the Legislature funded a single additional staffer — but not a safety cop. Rather, that staffer will be in Wyoming OSHA’s “consultation” program, which makes presentations on safety to companies that request it. “It’s this tantrum against regulations, resistance to any oversight,” Sessions explains. Another Wyoming trait.
Responding to the increase in deaths, Wyoming OSHA is inspecting more drilling rigs; the state now looks at a couple of dozen per year. But more than 100 rigs operate in Wyoming, including the ragtag coalbed methane fleet, and they’re constantly moved, drilling hole after hole, so each rig presents many workplaces per year. It’s still extremely rare to see an OSHA cop inspecting a rig, unless an accident has occurred. And the drilling rigs have the highest enforcement profile; other oil and gas workplaces get far less attention.
This industry regulates itself, really, by monetary pluses and minuses. Accidents raise costs, mainly insurance rates. On the other side of the ledger are the profits. The operator in charge pays up to $4 million to a drilling company for an average deep natural gas well and about $100,000 for a shallower coalbed methane well. Going faster reduces costs and increases profits, unless there’s an accident. It’s an ongoing balancing act, regularly tinged with blood.
“Many companies have safety policies, but guess what — if the work’s not getting done, who’s getting fired, regardless of the safety issues? (Sometimes) it’s the managers (on each rig),” says Bob Schilling, who helped run two Wyoming rigs where men died falling from derricks in 2001 and 2004. Bosses at various levels are “crunching their numbers,” he says. “To get things done efficiently, fast, (some will) sidestep safety stuff.”
Wyoming OSHA has its headquarters in the capital city, Cheyenne, tucked into a plain building that used to be a Montgomery Ward department store. Inside, I shake hands with the program manager, J.D. Danni. His father worked as a “mud man,” delivering chemical stews to oil and gas wells. Danni has a petroleum engineering degree and 15 years with Wyoming OSHA, nearly the last three as the boss.
Danni has a careful way of speaking, an even tone. He’s balanced between all the spinning chains of the industry — the Legislature, the governor and the families. Answering questions dutifully, here and in earlier phone talks, he explains why, when Wyoming OSHA hits a company with a fine, sometimes it doesn’t seem substantial, particularly in fatal accidents. That’s a pattern in the region: In general, the three state-run OSHA programs impose even lower fines than the federal OSHA programs, and they fine less often.
"The penalty is not associated with the death of that person," Danni says. "We try to emphasize that to the spouses and families (of the victims)." OSHA’s main goal is to get companies to correct unsafe procedures and equipment, he says, and "essentially to prevent it from happening again." If companies show they’ve made corrections, fines are reduced.
"Doing a fatality investigation," he adds, "it’s difficult to keep your feelings in check. We try not to get on one side or the other."
Even so, the Wyoming OSHA cops — under the leadership of Danni and the previous program manager, Steve Foster — show their dedication by making public the clearest, most detailed oil-and-gas accident reports of any OSHA program in the region. Sometimes, they reveal harrowing details and industry wrongdoing:
• In Harvey Montoya's case, for instance, two crews — one from California and one from Wyoming — were working on a new high-tech rig that was smaller than normal rigs. Some gear was too big, clearances were too tight. Montoya was perched in a basket that rode on vertical rails up the derrick. As the crews hoisted a piece of equipment, it snagged on the basket and pulled it upward quickly. Montoya’s fall-protection lanyard crushed him into the corner of the rising basket; the basket tipped over and he fell out, swinging on the lanyard, pendulum-like, into the derrick, which killed him. It was Aug. 6, 2002.
As Wyoming OSHA noted in its report, the rig’s driller was isolated in a soundproof control room, and the intercom that connected him to the outside had been broken for five weeks, so he didn’t hear the crew yelling at him to stop the hoisting that killed Montoya. OSHA also observed “tension, intimidation, friction” between the two crews and found they were being pushed too hard. Fatigue was a possible factor: Montoya, 39, was in the California crew, and they’d driven straight from California to the well “just prior to the accident.”
OSHA’s fine against Montoya’s employer, Wyoming-based Central Valley Tongs, was $10,000.
• During a night shift on Dec. 22, 2004, Phillip Lynn Pepper was on a platform nearly at the top of a tall rig. He leaned out to grab a hoisted pipe, lost his balance and fell 90 feet. He wasn’t wearing a proper fall-protection lanyard because that rig didn’t have a lanyard in the crow’s nest; it had broken 13 days earlier, but the rig had operated without it. The safety manager for the company, True Drilling, had a replacement lanyard in his pickup and didn’t drop it off. A different worker finally did get a replacement lanyard to the rig the day before the accident, but a boss on the rig said the weather was too bad — 35 below zero — to send anyone up the derrick to install it. Just the same, True Drilling sent men up to work in that same weather, without a safety lanyard. Pepper had 24 years in the oilfields; the autopsy showed methamphetamine and marijuana in his blood.
Wyoming OSHA said the drillers in this case “feared repercussions (from higher bosses) if they shut down operations” for safety reasons. True Drilling, which has more than a dozen rigs, got hit with the biggest fine in a Wyoming oil-and-gas accident in this decade: $19,250.
• Doug Shymanski, Dec. 12, 2005: Another drilling rig went through a run of 35-below weather, then had trouble with a broken drill bit, the pipe string getting stuck in a tight, 11,278-foot-deep hole. The rig had just lifted 373,000 pounds of pipe all at once when a large pulley at the top broke apart. “The entire rig rattled and banged,” and someone yelled, “Oh s—t,” and “everyone took off running,” the OSHA report says. Shymanski’s path was blocked by a heater installed near the door to the “doghouse” shelter. As he scrambled around the heater, a falling segment of steel cable sliced into his back and killed him. The company, Cyclone Drilling Inc., said it had inspected the pulley regularly and found no deficiencies. But several workers told OSHA they’d noticed the pulley looking worn weeks earlier and had reported it to bosses.
OSHA had an engineering professor examine the pieces of the pulley, and he found it “beyond worn; it was extremely fatigued.” Shymanski had more than 25 years in the oilfields; speed and pot were in his blood when he died. The fine against Cyclone Drilling: $16,250.
“Safety here is all day, every day,” says Patrick Hladky, operations manager at Cyclone Drilling, when I visit the company’s Gillette headquarters, a one-story building barely visible amid a full-scale blizzard. Cyclone is a classic go-getter Wyoming oil and gas company, family-owned, begun with one pieced-together rig in 1975. It has 27 rigs now, spread from New Mexico to North Dakota, and about 600 employees. Cyclone’s founder and president, Jim Hladky, tells me good-naturedly that he’s been hurt in two accidents: Before the safety-glasses era, a “wicker” — a steel splinter — flew from a cable into one of his eyes. He probably would’ve lost the eye, but that rig happened to be near doctors in Casper.
Then in 1994, while he assembled another rig, a mud line blew out, “sand-blasted” him, knocked him out, and left him with a scar down one cheek. Cyclone’s longtime safety manager, Tom Taylor, is missing most of four fingers on his right hand; that happened in 1974, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to stop a 3,000-pound pipe from rolling over another man. Paul Hladky, one of the founder’s sons, smashed some of his fingers while lowering pulleys in the Cyclone shop in 2004. Patrick Hladky, the founder’s other son, is intact, in black-rimmed glasses and a golf shirt.
The Cyclone headquarters reflects a sense of pride in mission. Dozens of color photos of drilling rigs decorate the walls: rigs lit up at night like Christmas trees, rigs at sunset, rigs in mountains and in sagebrush, rigs in all seasons. A shiny chromed drill bit, its teeth worn and chipped from hard use, rests on a pedestal in the lobby, with a plaque that says it had penetrated 112,707 total feet underground in 1,701 hours.
Patrick Hladky rattles off some of the thrusts of Cyclone’s safety program: Four staffers devoted to safety awareness, plus a mobile classroom on a bus and a stationary classroom in a man-camp near Pinedale. The company pays a $2-per-hour bonus and gives prizes — including TVs, silver belt buckles and hunting knives — to crews with good safety records. It donated major components of an old rig to the drillers’ school in Casper.
The wall calendar, back by the coffee machine, advises, “Embrace safety like it’s your wife!”
Cyclone operated nearly 30 years without a fatality. But the company has had three deaths, including Shymanski’s, in the last three years. Why? “I can’t put my finger on it,” Patrick Hladky says. “Each (accident) is different. Everybody likes to point to the company when something goes wrong.” But, he says, every worker has to take responsibility, too. “Everybody has to be on board, all day, every day,” he says.
Kim Floyd of the AFL-CIO has a take on the oil and gas industry’s overall commitment to safety, and it’s a harsh one: “They treat employees like a commodity. Once one is gone, there’s another standing to take his place.”
D.J. Maser Jr. shares that point of view. When I track him down, he’s using sandpaper to smooth sheetrock seams in a raw, unfinished house in Rock Springs, Wyo. He and the others in his crew — his brother, a cousin and a friend —- are covered with dust; a boombox blares rock music, and they’re swigging cans of an energy drink called Amp. D.J. is embarrassed, because he has two black eyes, the result of drinking too much last Saturday night and getting into a fistfight.
D.J. takes a break, lights a Marlboro, and talks about the accident he had at the periphery of the oil and gas industry. In 1997, when he was a 16-year-old high-school kid, he got a part-time job in the new L&H Welding and Machine shop on the edge of town. For D.J.’s first five days, the company had him degreasing a press brake, a huge machine used to bend steel. (It was not working at the time.) With “flash naphtha solvent” and rags, he rubbed the machine down inch by inch and tossed the dirty rags into a pile on the floor — all following bosses’ orders, he says.
On the fifth day, two men were welding on machinery nearby, and the sparks ignited the rags. D.J. tried to stamp out the fire, and that ignited his solvent-soaked coveralls. “The flame just shot up my whole body. It happened really quick,” he says. “I tried to drop and roll, which wasn’t working on a concrete floor. So I ran outside to roll in the dirt. When that didn’t work, I actually started to think of ways to kill myself, so that I didn’t burn to death. There were flames shooting five to six feet off of me. (Then) somebody ran up with a fire extinguisher.”
They rushed him to the local hospital, then by Life Flight to the Intermountain Burn Unit at the University of Utah Hospital. He almost died; with second-and-third-degree burns over 26 percent of his body, he was in immense pain and shock. Surgeons put him through four rounds of grafting skin from his thighs onto the burns on his arms and hands. The grafts were incredibly painful, and then he went through 18 months of painful physical therapy, at least six hours a day to begin with.
“The thing with burn scars is, they coil up, because your skin is trying to contract,” he says flatly, as if he’s observing himself from a distance. “So you have to constantly be stretching your joints, so that skin doesn’t tighten up to where you can’t bend any of your fingers or elbows or anything like that. They grab your fingers and bend them as far as you possibly can and hold it.”
D.J. Maser is invisible, as far as Wyoming OSHA is concerned. Because he was hurt but not killed, in an accident that did not hospitalize at least three workers, he’s not in the state’s OSHA stats. But he illustrates huge flaws in another branch of the workplace safety system: workers’ compensation insurance.
All states have workers’ comp as a basic workplace insurance program. While details vary state-to-state, the principle is simple and seemingly reasonable: Companies pay premiums to the program for each employee, and the program pays medical bills and some other costs arising from workplace accidents. Wyoming Workers’ Comp paid Maser’s medical bills, which were pricey. Otherwise, though, all he got from the system was a percentage of his pay for about 18 months (only about $270 per month, he says, because he made minimum wage), plus a settlement to cover his “impairment.”
Impairment is calculated with American Medical Association formulas, evaluating workers as you would a tool, strictly based on functionality. “If a banker and a concert pianist each lose two fingers, the banker can keep on banking, while the pianist is toast, but under the formulas, they have the same impairment,” says George Santini, a Cheyenne lawyer who specializes in workers’ comp. Since D.J., after intense therapy, recovered most of the use of his arms and hands, the formulas rated him 12 percent impaired, and the settlement was only $9,000.
Even through the sheetrock dust, I can see the reddish, leathery, wrinkled burn scars on his hands and arms. His fingernails grow strangely dented and contorted, because the nail beds were permanently damaged. He has more burn scars on his legs, and scars where skin was taken for grafts. He has to apply lotion to the scars frequently, trying to keep them supple. He has no sweat glands on his arms, so the rest of his body compensates; his palms are sweating right now.
His parents kept a bedside vigil for weeks at the burn unit. The shock and the long aftermath have been especially difficult for his father, D.J. Sr., who took six weeks off work to live with his son in the Ronald McDonald House associated with the Salt Lake City hospital. “My dad was more mentally scarred than I was. He still has a hard time with it,” says D.J. Jr. When I call D.J. Sr., he says he’s worrying about his son, who has struggled with substance abuse and been in and out of rehab several times. Lately D.J. Jr. was doing pretty well, but he fell off the wagon the weekend before I interviewed him.
Wyoming Workers’ Comp, like most states’ programs, pays nothing for physical or emotional pain and suffering. The Masers think that’s unfair. “There for a while, (the accident) completely altered my life,” says D.J. Jr.
The Masers pressed a lawsuit against L&H Welding, charging negligence. But the workers’ comp program includes a compromise: While it provides some benefits for accident victims, it makes the employers nearly immune to negligence lawsuits. The reasoning is, without protection for employers, the economy would collapse in a lawyers’ feeding frenzy over every workplace accident.
Each state’s legislature determines exactly how much immunity employers get, and courts weigh in, too. Utah’s Legislature passed a law last year providing wider immunity for employers, for example. In Wyoming, for decades the Legislature has favored employers, but every so often the state Supreme Court pushes back a bit for the workers. Once in a while, lawyers get traction and win sizable pots of money for victims and their families, but it happens rarely.
The Masers, though, believed they had a good chance in court. Federal regulations say some jobs are just too hazardous for 16- and 17-year-olds. The U.S. Department of Labor hit L&H Welding with the maximum penalty for violating child-labor regulations in regard to D.J. Jr. — a $10,000 fine, ultimately reduced to $6,750.
The Masers, and their lawyer, Clark Stith, saw the penalty as proof of negligence, and they sued and battled the company up to the state Supreme Court. But in 2000, the court demonstrated another Wyoming trait — resistance to anything federal. Wyoming law allows teens who are not yet adults to do some hazardous work, and the court held that state law trumps the feds on the child-labor issue. “If you are maimed or killed on the job in Wyoming because your employer violated a safety rule of the federal government, that’s just too bad,” says Stith, still dismayed by the ruling. “You can’t sue your employer (for that) in Wyoming.”
Since he regained the use of his hands, D.J. Jr. has been working pretty steadily, mostly on pipelines. About six months ago, his father quit a mining job and started the sheetrocking business, and they work together now with other family members. They’re putting in 12-hour days, six days a week, riding the home-construction boom that parallels the energy boom. Meanwhile, L&H Industrial Inc., as the company now calls itself, has continued to expand its services for oil and gas and mining, going global with shops scattered from South Africa to Canada.
“The way they have the laws set up,” D.J. Jr. says, “it’s just to protect Big Business’ ass, and to keep the rich rich and the workingman down.”
And in the gray area between federal and state laws, young Wyoming teens still find jobs in oil and gas. While investigating a recent oilfield fatality, for example, Wyoming OSHA observed a 17-year-old working in that oilfield. It forwarded the tip to the Wyoming Department of Labor, but that agency probably won’t do anything; it probably won’t even forward the tip to the federal Department of Labor, says an investigator at the state labor agency. The federal child-labor people are stretched so thin they won’t swoop into Wyoming unless a company shows a widespread pattern of hiring young teens, the investigator says.
“And for our agency,” the labor official notes, “there’s no way to extrapolate our jurisdiction to cover it.”
Clouds of fog drift just out of reach as I drive across the Big Horn Basin and through some of Wyoming’s oldest oilfields, begun in the 1920s and pumping ever since. It’s the type of fog that allows me to see a limited stretch of road ahead and no more, enough to lure me to drive too fast. I pass pumpjacks and a pipeline being laid and plants that process oil and gas, then I come into Worland — population 5,250 — and follow the directions Duane and Diana Riedel gave me. I turn at one church, then at another, and park in front of a modest split-level house.
They invite me in, obviously not quite knowing what to make of me, but they also have decided it’s worth the risk of talking. Duane is in his 27th year of teaching math in Worland schools. Diana is a receptionist at a doctor’s office.
We begin to discuss their oldest son, Josh. He grew up in Worland and, through hard work more than talent, became a star at Worland High School, playing for Warriors teams in track and field, soccer, basketball, and his best sport, football. In 1999, the statewide Casper Star-Tribune named Josh Riedel one of Wyoming’s top 25 high-school football players, and in 2000, the year he graduated, he won more statewide honors.
His dream was to become an airline pilot. He attended Rocky Mountain College Aviation School in Billings for two years and played college football. Then, because the family could no longer afford the $25,000 annual cost of the aviation school, he transferred to the University of Wyoming. Shaking off disappointment, he went to Florida, looking for an adventure, and got college credits while working as a lifeguard at Disney World. He liked Florida and planned to finish college there. But he came back to Worland for one more summer to build up his savings, working in oil and gas. “He never planned to stay around Worland,” Diana says. “There’s not a lot for the kids to do here, other than go into the oilfields.”
On July 23, 2004, Josh Riedel was working on a drilling rig near Pinedale. He had three weeks on the job, and it was a night crew. They were “tripping pipe” into the hole — that is, adding sections of pipe to go deeper. A couple of pipes wouldn’t thread together, and as they worked on that problem, the driller accidentally engaged the “breakout tongs,” 500-pound jaws for grabbing the pipes. Some of the men heard “a loud bang” and a scream as the tongs slammed into Josh Riedel, swept him upward, six feet off the rig floor, and pinned him there, against steel.
More than 350 people attended the memorial service in Worland, overflowing Grace Lutheran Church; they had to set up chairs outside to accommodate everyone.
Companies number their rigs: The one that killed Josh Riedel was Nabors #521. Wyoming OSHA investigators found that the driller and others in the crew on rig 521 were inexperienced, that fatigue was a factor in the accident, and that control valves and levers on the driller’s panel were improperly installed, making it easy for the driller to make the mistake with the tongs. The driller said he’d been “nervous” operating the rig because of its many marginal, pieced-together components.
Wyoming OSHA negotiated with Nabors over corrective actions, then fined the company $625. Outraged, Duane and Diana went to the Worland newspaper, and the Associated Press picked up the story. Wyoming OSHA raised the fine to $1,875. Once the accident made repair a priority, it took the company only a few days to fix the faulty control, Duane says.
Then in 2006, on the same rig, another man got killed in an accident with a “chain tong” that gripped the pipes. Wyoming OSHA found the tongs operator wasn’t supposed to be on the controls; he’d just been demoted for making mistakes. Many in that crew were inexperienced, and the rig had other broken parts. The fine in this case: $8,750.
Along with its generally good reputation for safety, which includes running its own drillers’ school, Nabors has more than 600 rigs around the world. The company moved its headquarters from Houston to Bermuda in 2002, in part to lessen its federal tax exposure, and since then its annual profits have soared, topping $1.4 billion last year. The company gave the Riedels $6,000, they say to help pay for Josh’s funeral. Wyoming Workers’ Comp paid the standard funeral benefit, $10,000.
The Riedels are suing, alleging negligence and wrongful death. They say they’re battling for a principle — those who are responsible should admit it — and they’ll use any proceeds to set up a scholarship fund in Josh’s name for Worland High grads who go to college.
But because of the workers’ comp immunity shield for Josh’s employer, they have to try an indirect shot: They’re suing Questar Exploration and Production Company, the operator that hired Nabors to drill the well, and other companies linked to the workplace, as well as individual Nabors bosses. These types of bank shots are sometimes all that the system leaves. (The Lasters in Gillette are pressing a similar lawsuit against individual bosses at Tyvo LLC.) But they can alienate judges and juries.
And the Riedels have hit yet another obstacle: Nabors requires its employees to sign a dispute resolution agreement saying such complaints must be taken to arbitration, instead of court. The companies’ lawyers say Josh Riedel signed such a paper, and so an arbitrator appointed by the American Arbitration Association or Judicial and Mediation Services must decide who is right. The Riedels’ lawyer, Robert Tiedekin, says, “Corporate America uses arbitration agreements more and more. I view them as very one-sided deals. They’re an effort to take away the constitutional rights of their employees to have jury trials.” He’s trying to keep the Riedels’ case going in state court.
Duane and Diana sit down in their living room, where a beautiful stained-glass window piece depicts sunrise over Cloud Peak, Josh’s favorite hike in the nearby Big Horn mountains. They show me the video of his memorial service, and the brochure for it, which has a drawing of Devils Tower National Monument. (Josh climbed it, on an expedition with his pastor.) They show me a video of the time Josh went skydiving in Florida. Another parachutist held the camera, and Josh looks tentative at the door of the plane. Then he leaps, and as he plummets with the airspeed ripping him, he’s grinning.
The Riedels have another obligation, and I go with them to the Worland Community Center gym, where their youngest son, 12-year-old Matthew, is playing in a basketball tournament. The Worland boys got thrashed, 60-10, by Riverton, in the morning game. Now they’re playing another small town, Cody. The gym is intimate, allowing room for about two dozen parents, on two rows of bleachers wedged between the court and the wall. Worland hardly has uniforms, just black T-shirts, black shorts and gray jerseys, while the Cody boys wear bright, blue-and-white shirts and shorts, with their numbers in gold. The Cody boys are more agile and accurate, and at halftime, they are up 20-10. In the second half, Cody intercepts a pass and runs a fast break, and it’s 24-12.
Matthew Riedel comes off the Worland bench — a row of yellow plastic chairs — for brief bursts of playing time. He’s tall and gangly for his age and looks sweet; he has curly hair. “Josh looked similar at this age, except he had straight hair,” Diana says. Matthew gets a rebound, and his mother hoots encouragement. One of Worland’s coaches works in the oilfields, Duane confides. Knowing I’m interested, Duane also tells me about the time his own brother was working on a drilling rig in North Dakota and fell out of the crow’s nest, a 90-foot drop. Somehow all he got was a broken ankle, a broken wrist, a broken elbow, and some lingering back trouble. A miracle. Even Duane worked one summer in the local oilfields, and he says that when he retires from teaching in a few years, he may go back, for the money.
The Worland boys valiantly manage a couple of baskets. Matthew wrestles the ball from an opponent, dribbles down court and lofts up a tall arcing shot — his parents holding their breaths — but it goes too high, bouncing on the top edge of the backboard and falling out of bounds. “Oh my goodness!” Diana says.
A Cody boy blows past Matthew and sinks another shot. “At least it’s better than this morning,” Diana says. The Worland boys are going to lose this game, too, but they’re not giving up. “Defense!” Diana yells, cupping her hands around her mouth as a megaphone. “Deeeefense!”
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Ray Ring, covering the Northern Rockies from his base in Bozeman, Mont., noticed a string of fatal accidents in the region’s oil and gas industry in 2005 and 2006. As he looked further, he found more accidents and a pattern of underreporting by news media, oil and gas companies and worker-safety agencies.
During months of subsequent reporting, Ring filed more than two dozen federal and state freedom-of-information requests for records and statistics from worker-safety agencies in seven states and Washington, D.C. In the end, he gathered safety agency investigative reports — or as they’re sometimes known, narratives — on more than 100 accidents. He also reviewed dozens of lawsuits and countless other documents and interviewed a wide variety of agency officials, lawyers, academics, industry leaders and, of course, workers and families whose lives have been irrevocably changed by injury and death in the oil and gas fields of the Mountain West.